We’re posting a number of summer food and cocktail recipes for Memorial Day weekend, so let’s get going. We will start with our favorite “summer” dish, pulled pork. Also simply known as pork barbecue, pulled pork is one of the most tender, succulent and flavorful meat dishes you can find. Nothing feeds, and pleases a crowd, like a brined, rubbed and slowly smoked pork shoulder. And it is pretty easy to make. You just need one ingredient: time. Lots of time (some planning and patience help too). But it is worth making this dish, particularly for a holiday weekend.
In case you are unfamiliar with pulled pork, it is a pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt) that’s smoked at a low temperature for a long span of time. Usually, though not always, the pork is also brined and a spice rub is added for extra flavor. The long, low-temperature cooking breaks down the fat and connective tissue in the shoulder into gelatin that bathes the meat and provides the tender “finger-licking” flavor of great barbecue. Pulled pork is cooked everywhere in the US, but its spiritual home is the southeast. Texas has beef brisket, the Mississippi river region has ribs, but the Carolinas have pulled pork. We like the Carolinas.
As for making the pulled pork, it can be a 1-day or 2-3 day operation, it simply depends on the time you have. The most basic approach is to get a pork shoulder and rub it with salt and pepper. Then smoke it with hickory or applewood at about 210 degrees for at least 8 hours or until the internal temperature of the pork is at least 190 degrees (shortcut included below). Let the meat rest for an hour and then “pull” or chop it. The meat will shred easily. And this will be good, real good. But it can be so much better.
To take pulled pork to the next level requires a few extra steps and a few extra days. The frist step is to brine the pork shoulder. Pork isn’t as fatty as it used to be, so added moisture is a good thing while cooking, as is extra flavor from the brine. The brine is just a combination of salt, sugar and water (plus seasonings if you like). Pork will benefit from as little as 6 hours of brining, but up to 48 hours will help without making the pork too salty. 12-24 hours is about right. And making the brine is as easy as boiling water with sugar and salt and letting it cool. Once the brine is cool, you place the pork in the brine and keep it in the fridge.
The next step is to add a dry rub to your pork shoulder. Spice rubs add flavor to the meat and develop an attractive and tasty, “bark” on the outside of the meat while cooking. And if you let the rub sit on the least overnight, the flavor will penetrate deep into the pork and add a new dimension of flavor. There are literally thousands of pork rub variations, and you can make most of them at home. While purists my scoff, you can also buy pork barbecue rubs at the grocery store. We make our own, but also use store-bought with success. We include a recipe based on a combination of a Alton Brown’s and Steve Raichlen’s (good BBQ writer, btw) rubs with a few tweaks of our own. But, in general, if you like a flavor like thyme or cumin, add a little more.
So once you brine and rub the pork, you are ready to smoke. If you have a dedicated smoker, that is great (we use a Big Green Egg- very good tool). If not, most grills have instructions for smoking, please follow them. Weber kettle grills are easily adapted to smoking and do a great job. Gas grills also work. The key is to cook low and slow and get good smoke. We use a mix of 50/50 applewood and hickory and soak the woodchips or chunks for at least 30 minutes. Soaking the wood is critical, you want the wood to smoke, not burn. The other critical element is temperature control. You want to keep an even temperature at about 210 degrees. It usually takes some time to control the airflow on your smoker to reach, and maintain, the right temperature, but it’s worth it. The goal is to slowly build the internal temperature of the pork to at least 190 degrees- this is what gets you the “finger-licking” texture of great barbecue. Normally this will take 8-10 hours, but there are other ways that save you a little time.
Again, traditionalists my be horrified, but it is generally accepted science that the pork will absorb most of the smoke flavor in the first 3-4 hours of smoking. So after 3 hours of smoking you could move the pork shoulder into a lidded Dutch oven or covered roasting pan and cook in a 300 degree oven for 3-4 hours, or until you reach 190 degrees internal temperature. If we have time we will smoke the full 10 hours, but we use the oven method quite often. And if you are entertaining, the “finish in the oven” method is much more convenient and lets you control the timing.
There is one last step that cannot be ignored, regardless of how you cook the pork. After reaching the desired temperature the pork needs to be covered, or wrapped in foil, and rested for at least an hour. The pork will keep cooking but the juices will set in the meat for a better, juicier texture. After the hour is up, just “pull” the pork apart with 2 forks or lightly chop with big knife. The pork will fall apart easily.
To serve the pork we place a big pile of the meat on an everyday hamburger bun, add some sauce, pile on some cole slaw and finish with a few bread and butter pickles. As for the sauce, we use an adapted North Carolina-style vinegar sauce that is very piquant, but is a bit sweeter and not as bracing. But we suggest you use a style of barbecue sauce you like. And, if you are so inclined, an ice-cold beer is a nice compliment to the pork. In the end, you can serve the pork almost any way you like, you and your guests will be very happy. There is no other dish that says “summer is here, and the living is easy” like pulled pork.
Notes Before You Start:
- You can use bone-in or bone-out pork shoulder. Bone-in may be a bit juicer, but you can get rub into the center of the bone-out shoulder for more flavor.
- If you order the pork shoulder from your butcher, tell them not to take off too much fat. It will mostly render during cooking, but helps keeps the meat moist.
- If you see a red ring near the outside of the meat, this is OK. In fact, it means you did a good job smoking the meat. The red color is a chemical reaction to the smoke.
What You Get: An American classic and one of the best pork dishes in the world. Period.
What You Need: A smoker or grill that adapts to smoking.
How Long: At least 1 day and if brining and rubbing the pork, at least 3 days. Pulled pork is a “special occasion” dish that requires planning. We posted on Monday so you can get ready for the weekend..;-)
- 1 pork shoulder, 6-8 pounds
- 16 hamburger buns
- 1 quart cole slaw (optional)
- Bread and butter pickles (optional)
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 3 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons dry thyme
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons onion powder
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar (or molasses)
- 1 teaspoon salt (add more to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce (add more to taste)
- For the brine, combine the water, salt and sugar in a large pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for a few minutes until the salt and sugar dissolve. Allow the brine to cool a few hours on the stove top then chill in a large container (one that will fit the pork and brine) in the fridge. Once chilled, add the pork to the brine and place in the fridge from 6-48 hours.
- For the dry rub, combine all the ingredients and store in an airtight container. When ready to use, generously “rub” the dry rub onto the pork, covering all available surfaces. Allow the pork to “marinate” in the rub for up to 48 hours, or smoke immediately.
- For the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and stir until combined. Taste and adjust salt and hot sauce, if you like. Store in the fridge (the sauce will be ok for about a week).
- To cook the pork, prepare your smoker to smoke at 210 degrees. Soak your wood chips or chunks. Add a drip pan, if necessary. Place the pork shoulder on the smoker grate or in a shallow foil pan. Add wood chips and smoke for 8-12 hours or until the pork reaches 190 degrees internal temperature. (Or smoke for 3 hours and move the pork to a lidded vessel and finish in a 300 degree oven until the pork reaches 190 degrees internal temperature, about 3-4 hours).
- Once the pork reaches 190 degrees, remove from the heat, but keep it covered and allow it to rest for at least 1 hour. After 1 hour, “pull” the pork apart with 2 forks or chop with a large knife. Serve on hamburger buns with sauce, cole slaw and pickles, if you like.